Top scientists challenge oil giant on climate change denial

Britain's top scientific institution has accused US oil giant ExxonMobil of deliberately undermining the scientific consensus on climate change in its own communications and by funding organisations that mislead the public.

In a letter to Esso, the UK arm of the company, published by the Guardian newspaper the Royal Society called the company’s climate change message “inaccurate and misleading.” It challenged Esso to fulfill its promise of cutting funds for organisations that misrepresent scientific knowledge about climate change – by exaggerating uncertainties or “outright denial.”

Some 39 organisations that received funds from ExxonMobil in 2005 were spreading information that “misrepresents the science of climate change,” says the Royal Society. Overall, the company allotted over $2.9m to funding climate change denial and misrepresentation over the course of that year, calculates the Royal Society’s Bob Ward, the letter’s author.

One of the organisations the Royal Society objects to is the Washington-based International Policy Network, which describes itself as a “network of policy institutes around the world defending property rights, the rule of law, free markets and free speech.”

In its recent ‘critique’ of the UK’s Stern Review of the economics of climate change, the IPN wrote: “An ambitious world-wide programme to limit greenhouse gas emissions is represented as a matter of urgency. In our view, these various interrelated judgements are too confident and unqualified.

“What is said here about the scientific aspects gives insufficient weight to the pervasive uncertainties which still surround projections of climate change, largely because of the extraordinary complexity of the system under study.”

The organisation also wrote in a report on climate change and development that “whether climate change proves benign or harmful, attempting to control it through global regulation of emissions would be counterproductive” because it would halt development.

The IPN received $130,000 from Exxon Mobil in 2005. It responded to the criticism by pointing out its “guiding principles,” including the “scholarly integrity” of the authors of its publications. It also said that its agenda is “neither dictated nor compromised by outside financial sources.”

The ‘uncertainty argument’ about climate change can be found in ExxonMobil’s own communications, such as its Corporate Citizenship Report, in which the company says that, for bodies like the International Panel on Climate Change, it is “very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions” because of the complex nature of the system and natural climate variability.

The Royal Society called the company’s statements “very misleading,” and said that the IPCC Change had in fact considered natural variability in detail.

While the IPCC, which is traditionally conservative in its predictions, does say that most of the last 50 years’ warming is “likely” – rather than certain – to have been caused by rising greenhouse gas levels. But the panel also writes in its third assessment report that “the warming over the last 50 years due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases can be identified despite uncertainties in forcing due to anthropogenic sulphate aerosol and natural factors.”

An even stronger line, accompanied by higher temperature rise predictions, is expected from the IPCC’s fourth report, due to be published in February.

In the letter to ExxonMobil, the Royal Society’s Bob Ward said: “I have shared the contents of your documents with some climate researchers who are Fellows of the Royal Society and it would be useful to update them about whether ExxonMobil will be continuing to express views that are inconsistent with the findings of their work.”

ExxonMobil said in a statement that the Royal Society has “inaccurately and unfairly described our company” and that it funds organisations that “research significant policy issues and promote informed discussion on issues of direct relevance to the company.”

ExxonMobil is the oil company most targeted by environmentalists with protests and boycotts because of its communications on climate change and its refusal to invest in ‘green’ energy, which competitors like BP or Shell have done.

Goska Romanowicz

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie